This week, I finished reading Blessed are the Peacemakers by S. Jonathan Bass.
What’s the big idea? Bass tells the story of the writing of Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. His main goal is to flesh out the lives and careers of the eight clergymen who were named as “recipients” of the letter. Along the way, he also gives interesting insight into the history of Birmingham, the strategy of MLK, the composition process of the letter itself, and the place these things had in the larger civil rights movement.
Why this book? It came to me highly recommended by a regular attendee at our Wednesday worship service. While I physically can’t read every book recommended to me, I do try to pick up titles that people find moving. It seemed timely to me, since racial issues again capture the headlines in America.
How long did it take? I’ve been dipping into this on and off for the past month or so. My general practice is to read several books concurrently, so this one has taken a little more time. What’s more, it clocks in at 300+ pages of relatively small print. This is a careful, slow piece that methodically tackles the subject well. Do not expect a breezy read that you can tackle in one afternoon.
What are your big takeaways?
1) “Moderate” does not equal “lukewarm.” The eight clergymen named in the letter were popularly dismissed as lukewarm moderates. In fact many of them were activists working toward integration, though they disagreed with MLK’s confrontational tactics. Most of them suffered threats, intimidation, and abuse at the hands of the radical segregationists. The moderate stance is not wishy-washy, but rather concerned with stability – trying to ask the question “what will be left after all the activists move on to the next exciting project.”
2) Criticizing the Press is nothing new. The book depicts MLK’s masterful strategy for attracting press attention for his movement. Of course, locals in Birmingham criticized the press for what they called an unfair portrayal of the city. Meanwhile, when the press began to show scenes of aggressive Black Power protesters, many in King’s movement began to criticize the press for always focusing on the negative. Partisans and activists seem to think of the press as a tool in their kit – and when the press is against them, they sow doubt as to the legitimacy of the independent press.
3) History is full of really interesting nuance. Rather than “good guys” versus “bad guys,” Bass paints a complex tapestry of personalities, agendas, social settings, and events. I find it much easier to identify with the people of history when I see the nuance in the story. History comes alive and becomes real.
Should I read this book? If you like 20th century American history, are a student of the civil rights movement, or have been deeply inspired by the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, then this book will be an interesting and rewarding read. I wouldn’t describe it as a “must-read” or a book required for cultural literacy. Rather, it’s a good book for the serious student who wants a deeper understanding of the events that have made America who we are today.
Now, my questions back to you:
What is a “must-read” civil rights book that you would recommend?
What books help you understand 20th century American history?
Where would an appreciation of nuance help us today?